Discover more from Overcoming Bias
A Call For Cancel Courts
For perhaps a million years, gossip was the only “law” humans had. We talked about who may have broken what norms, came to a consensus about guilt and remedies, and then cooperated to implement their remedy. Which worked well when we lived in bands of size 20 to 50.
But after the farming revolution, we found that gossip didn’t work so well in village-area-sized communities of around a thousand. In a band, most everyone heard most everyone’s opinions through several channels, and the person discussed was well known to all. But in a village, most didn’t usually know the accused well, they rarely heard all sides, and gossip created incentives to agree too much with, and exaggerate, the claims of the first person you heard on the subject. As a result, village gossip tended to induce a rush to judgement.
To fix gossip’ fillings, humans invented law, the core of which was having a trial, wherein a neutral judge heard all sides making their case, and respond to each other, before making their decision. Which limited the rush to judgement.
Today social media has amped up the power of gossip. Crowds can now form opinions on more cases, and thus enforce more norms on more people. But this has also revived the ancient problem of gossip rushing to judgement.
First, a few people start complaining that a target has been evil. If they complain about the breaking of a criminal law, then authorities can announce an investigation, and complainers can back off and wait for that to finish. But if the complaint is not about breaking a law, the crowd knows that punishment will only happen if they make a big stink.
So a small crowd tries to recruit a larger crowd repeating their accusations, hoping to eventually induce “cancelation” by the target’s associates. Fire them, cancel their speaking engagement, etc. Others often do join in, thinking they are doing God’s work by punishing evil. But they mostly just repeat the accusations they’ve heard, without doing more research. And so such crowds often go awry. (A fact to which I can testify from personal experience.)
The target’s associates may cancel out of fear of being cancelled themselves if they do not. It doesn’t help much for such associates to investigate, as if they find the target innocent, the crowd probably won’t believe them, due to suspicions of bias from wanting to protect their associate. And such suspicions are often well-grounded.
I’ve said before that it might be better if we had formal laws against the kinds of evil that cancel crowds now seek to punish. Because at least then there’d be a formal trail before punishment, which could exonerate many of the accused. But it doesn’t look like such laws will be passed anytime soon.
So I seriously propose that some respectable independent groups create non-government non-profit “Cancel Courts”. When a crowd starts to complain about a target, these courts can quickly announce some mix of a speedy investigation and trial on this complaint. They’d solicit evidence from both sides, study it, and then eventually announce their verdict.
If such courts could show themselves to be neutral and careful, then both sides might tend to accept their verdicts. If the target were found innocent, then the target’s associates could feel more confident in resisting pressures to cancel, and the crowd might be more willing to back off. And if the target were found guilty, associates might be more comfortable with cancelling, and the crowd could disband with more reason to think they had done good, by calling attention to and opposing evil.
There is of course work to be done here, to make cancel courts work well. They’d have to define categories of accusations, and standards by which to judge such accusations, and ways to explain their verdicts. (For example, I made this suggestion before.) But they don’t have to be perfect at first, or even ever. Remember that to be helpful they just have to be better than the status quo, which is the cancel crowds we have now. That’s a pretty low bar.
And as with most law, cancel courts don’t need to figure out all their categories and standards right from the start. As in most legal systems, they can evolve such things with experience. That is, they can use some mix of considering each case anew and trying to judge new cases similar to how they’d judged previous cases.
It might be best if everyone interested in creating cancel courts could cooperate to create a single court system. But if they can’t agree and ended up making several competing systems, that wouldn’t be such a terrible outcome. Sometimes the court verdicts would agree, giving a clear signal to crowds and associates. And sometimes they’d disagree, leaving us closer to the sort of situation in which we usually find ourselves today. Cancel courts don’t have to handle every case well to add value.
Those who build the first cancel courts should be prestigious folks with a reputation for care, at least as much as is possible given the other constraints here. More important, they should be clearly independent of both sides. Ideally, they should not be people who crowds have tried to cancel, nor should they have been part of such cancelling crowds. (Thus I should not be much involved.) If donations are accepted to support this process, such donations should be washed of any signs saying from which side of these disputes they came. To prevent pressures for verdicts that favor donors.
So, have I convinced any of you of the value of such a project?